By Alan Gillespie

In the back of Helen Bell's wardrobe hangs a faded checked shirt, unworn for more than 50 years. It belonged to her brother, the vocalist in a trailblazing blues band whose compelling journey of dancehall triumphs and tragedies has been all but forgotten. They were called the Blues Council, an effortlessly cool, soulful band of the people, with masterful musicianship, exquisite timing and velvety vocals. Their story has been lost even to those nostalgic for the golden age of Glasgow’s music scene.

“They were a rhythm and blues band,” explains Helen. “Bill Patrick, he played great sax. Henry Wright was the drummer, John McGinnis played Hammond organ. Les Harvey on guitar. Wee Jimmy Giffen was the bass guitarist, and our boy Fraser was the singer.”

Fraser Calder would die aged 23, killed in a motorway crash after a party in Edinburgh; the accident also claimed the life of Jim Giffen, who was 19. It was March, 1965. The band had just signed a record deal with Parlophone (becoming stablemates with the Beatles) and released their debut single, a footstomping classic called Baby Don’t Look Down. The boys’ deaths have been romantically called ‘Scotland's First Rock n' Roll Tragedy,’ but for the musicians’ families the pain of their loss remains vivid.

“Don't ask me why I've kept his shirt,” says Helen. “It's the last link. It's the one I liked him in. I can still see him wearing it, can still touch him, in a sense.”

Despite fading from popular culture, the Blues Council have a legacy in their native city. In a lecture delivered at the Glasgow School of Art in 1996, the novelist James Kelman revealed their influence: “[The Blues Council] sang of their own existence, in their own voice, from their own emotion, whether rage, hatred, or love. At the root of what they were about was self-respect.”

The Blues Council had credibility, demonstrating that normal kids brought up in normal tenements could create the same musical magic normally imported from America, London and Liverpool.

John McGinnis, the keyboard player, had already played with most of his bandmates in previous line-ups. “Joe McCourtney was our manager, and he had the idea of a band that didn't have lead guitar. And it worked, with the two saxes. We could play all the soul stuff – Marvin Gaye, James Brown. We got tore into it. It was a great sound.”

Henry Wright was the band’s original drummer. He feels the Blues Council’s dynamic performances were key to their success. “We were real pioneers; everyone came to see us.” The band recreated a popular London style. “They wanted a mod band. They managed to get premises in West Nile Street, called the Scene Club. We became the resident band. We got very tight, as a band, playing almost every night, twice at weekends. We used to joke about the Beatles’ song, Eight Days a Week – well, we played eight gigs a week.”

Fraser’s immense talent as a vocalist was not revealed to his family, especially not his older sister. “I didn't even know Fraser was seriously into singing,” says Helen. “He didn't want us to know, he was quite self-conscious.”

Jessie Buckley and Nicole Taylor on country music, mothers, Glasgow and their new film Wild Rose

Over time, as the band gained momentum, Helen picked up clues about her brother’s nocturnal activities. “My mother used to say he must have been nervous and sweating on stage. The fronts of his trousers where he would rub his hands were all shiny, so it's been quite an energetic thing. But it was Fraser's secret world.”

The Blues Council earned a reputation as a high-energy, crowd-pleasing attraction. However, on one of the band’s most ambitious nights, the violent nature of Glasgow’s gang culture would impose itself. “Everything was going pretty well,” explains Henry, “until there was a murder at the club. There was a big night planned: the Bobby Patrick Big Six; Alex Harvey’s Soul Band, and the Blues Council. The queue was going down the stairwell, from the door of the club into the street.”

The club hired amateur wrestlers as bouncers, and one of them had fallen out with a gang member. “The next thing there was people running into the club and screaming. These guys had come to get him. They chased him up to the top floor landing. They had knives, axes. The blood was just pouring down the stairs. That was the end of the club, it was closed down.”

Glasgow’s vicious reputation compelled Fraser to keep his nightlife a secret from his family. Nevertheless, Helen cherishes the only occasion she saw the band perform. “They were booked to play the St Andrew's Halls, and the blooming thing burnt down. Whoever was organising the concert – it was Georgie Fame and Blue Flames headlining – booked the Odeon instead. So we were allowed to go, believe it or not. He was a different person, I didn't recognise him. I was terrified he would hit a wrong note. When he came off stage, I still hate myself that I didn't grab him and cuddle him. It was amazing. But that was the only time.”

Glasgow in the 1960s was not short of musical influences. “How Fraser made the jump to singing I've no idea. With no lessons, he had the most amazing voice,” says Henry. “If they'd had the luck, he would've done something big, because his voice was soulful, melodic. Alex Harvey was also soulful but aggressive. His Soul Band was outrageous, light years ahead of everybody else. We were big fans. He was an enthralling type.” Alex Harvey was the Godfather of the Scottish music scene. “He was a big influence, a great showman,” says John.

With the Blues Council established as the country’s leading live band, they began to influence the next generation. “We went to Dunfermline,” says Henry. “The band Nazareth came to see us. Most people did. It was the band. We werenae just a straightforward guitar band. We had keyboards, two sax players. Average White Band was another one, we were big influences for them.” Alan Mair, bass guitarist for the Beatstalkers (known as ‘Scotland’s Beatles’), often went to see the Blues Council, and praises them as “the best group of that time.”

Despite their talent and popularity, the Blues Council’s original line-up would not last. “Henry got an offer to play with Lulu,” recalls John. “We were very close at the time, Henry, Fraser and myself. We had a wee night out down at the Rogano – we had plenty of money, finishing our apprenticeships, getting a full wage, plus £12 a week from music. We all ended up in tears: Henry was leaving. Fraser took it hard, but we knew it would happen. Wee Lulu used to come to the Scene Club and watch us.” The opportunity to turn professional was too good to reject. For his replacement, Henry recommended Billy Adamson, who he considered to be the best drummer in the city. “Drumming came out of his soul,” agrees John.

Beo Festival: Skye entrepreneur James Robertson on celebrating Gaelic music

McCourtney’s vision of a guitar-less band evolved around this time. “Joe bit the bullet, so we got in Leslie Harvey,” says John. “His brother was Alex Harvey, who was showing him a lot of blues stuff, but he was also going to legit lessons with a jazzer. Played beautifully. Out of this world, I cannot speak highly enough of Les.”

The band caught the attention of London-based scouts. McCourtney and Scott travelled south and attracted the attention of Dick James and Parlophone Records. “Once the contract was signed, we needed to record the single. It was going to be a Randy Newman number – nobody knew Randy Newman then. We went down, recorded it, stayed on Baker Street. That was it. We were booked for Cathy McGowan's programme Ready, Steady Go, on national television. We were handing in our notice at work, celebrating, and that's when it happened. The boys went to that party in Edinburgh and never came back.”

Helen bristles with injustice. “McCourtney was the one that talked Fraser into going to that party that night. Obviously, I've hated him ever since.” On the way home, the driver would fall asleep, and swerve into a lamppost. “Nobody discovered the car for a while, so they were stuck there. The two that were killed? Jimmy, great bass player; and Fraser, a great singer. The boys said they'd never use the Blues Council name again.” Jim Giffen was dead on arrival at the Royal Infirmary. Fraser clung on, but died the following day.

Henry was now playing with Lulu and the Luvvers. “When I heard Fraser was dead, I phoned my mother. I was hysterical, sobbing my heart out.”

The music scene commemorated Fraser and Jim with a “massed tribute” concert, held at the Barrowland Ballroom. Over 40 bands from all over the country attended. The Express reported that, “1200 dancers paid a silent tribute during a preview of the group’s only record, Baby Don’t Look Down.”

“My family weren't there,” says Helen. “We were too raw. It was quite soon after the accident. God, I'm still raw about it.”

John remembers the crowds that attended the boys’ funerals, and the loss of such precocious talent. “There were crowds of people queuing up outside the service in Paisley. So sad. Fraser treated the microphone like it was another instrument, not just something to put in front of your face and shout into. He could work with it.”

Henry cherishes his memories. “I remember Fraser saying to me, ‘the thing I've always liked about you, is that you never wanted anything from me.’ And that's true, the only thing I ever wanted was his friendship. I had that already, and it was wonderful, a brilliant thing.”

The Blues Council's official output has remained the Newman single, with a B side, What Will I Do. Helen has an acetate of their demo tape, featuring nine unreleased songs from 1963. The quality of these recordings and the talent of the musicians shine through. These tracks are the ultimate epitaph to an unheralded yet iconic band.

For Helen, Fraser’s death and success are intertwined. “We got a letter from the record label afterwards,” she says, “to say how sorry they were. They still released the single because it was all set up to go. It was rumoured that they would be on Top of the Pops. Why would you not put Fraser on Top of the Pops?”

Along with that faded checked shirt, the recordings are the last connection Helen has to her brother. The music is bittersweet, bringing joy and sadness.

“I'm getting better at listening to them,” she says. “At the beginning, it's as if he's speaking to me. Then you get into the music, and it's easier. It's a great record. I just wish that he'd had his chance, but that's all. And I wish I could stop crying – how many years is it, my God?”

The Blues Council’s unreleased recordings can be found at: